Back in April 1999, the Knicks, in danger of missing the playoffs, were stoking the latest power struggle in the executive offices. On talk radio and in the sports pages, the favorite to take the fall was coach Jeff Van Gundy. Patrick Ewing called Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts with his opinion. “I’m not going to play for another coach,” Ewing said out of loyalty to a man who’d watched his back for ten years. As the headlines blazed, Ewing called Knicks general manager Ernie Grunfeld, whom he also considered a friend, for a chat – blithely unaware that he’d just handed Checketts the cover he needed to turn around and ax Grunfeld. “Patrick,” says a Knicks insider, “got played again.”
Ewing has learned a lot in fifteen NBA seasons, but he’s never acquired an ounce of political or media savvy, and that’s what earned him headlines like GOOD RIDDANCE when last week’s trade talks surfaced. If you’re employed by the most politically treacherous, media-saturated organization in pro basketball, it’s a fatal weakness.
From the start of his career, Ewing didn’t trust the Knicks’ P.R. people who counseled him to open up a little, but he never hired his own media strategist. “Isn’t that the kind of thing Ewing’s agent David Falk is making big bucks to handle?” asks St. John’s coach Mike Jarvis, who was Ewing’s high-school coach. (Falk is “useless” on image management, concurs a former Knicks boss.) Several years ago, when Ewing was viciously booed at the Garden, he spoke angrily in the locker room afterward. “P.R. 101 in New York,” says a basketball executive, “is that you don’t rip the fans. And if you do, the next day you apologize, which turns it into a one-day story. Not Patrick. For him, taking anything back is a sign of weakness, and that’s a line he’ll never cross.” The same stubbornness and pride have also fueled his return from crippling injuries, and his grueling rehab from Achilles-tendon surgery could have been used to bank some public sympathy and press goodwill – if he’d allowed a reporter to watch. “Not a chance,” a Knick P.R. rep said at the time. “He’s just too wary.”
“It’s crucial to cultivate reporters in New York,” says a sports-marketing expert, “and Patrick has never done that. Look at Doc Rivers: voted coach of the year without even making the playoffs, because of all the talking he did to reporters when he was with the Knicks.” Amazingly, Ewing has a chance to win the spin. He’s been painted as greedy, wanting one last fat contract. But now it’s the Knicks who look like amateurs for letting the trade unravel in public. All Ewing has to do is say the right things, maybe to Mike Lupica, about caring only for a ring in New York. Chances are he’ll brick this shot too.